Entrepreneurs and COVID-19 - Interview with Tim Lee of Sanctuary Coffee * Cycle * Culture (Richmond)

Image of owner Tim Lee by John Lee for Visit Richmond
Please share a bit about yourself as an entrepreneur and what your business entails - brick and mortar store, online, product, etc..

I am new to being an entrepreneur. I was originally in the corporate world working as a Human Resources professional for 20+ years. I was looking for something else to get me excited and challenge me in a different way.

I opened Sanctuary Cafe nearly 2 years ago, as a cafe with a bike-friendly theme. The idea was to become a cycling hub for riders in the Lower Mainland and the surrounding community. The location of the cafe is situated on the Richmond Loop, a well-used cycling route for local riders. With a lot of seating indoors, we invite customers to sit, slow-down and enjoy the peaceful environment (under normal circumstances). I also have a large screen behind the counter that shows cycling races (no sound) for enthusiasts to enjoy, as well as an inside wall bike rack for use during bad weather.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, how did you work with your regular clients and reach out to new ones. What type of marketing worked best for you?

We have found Instagram and Facebook as our primary social platforms used. We dabble in Twitter, but we are not active enough to say it is a primary source of advertisement for us. Most importantly, we have relied upon word-of-mouth within the cycling community and surrounding neighborhood to promote the cafe. Lastly, I'm a "talker" as many will attest. I enjoy having conversations with everyone and hope to build relationships with my customers as much as possible. Getting to know one another I feel is just as important as good coffee, if not more. 

How has the social isolation required to combat the spread of COVID-19 affected your business? What about this has been hardest for you personally?

We closed for two weeks while social isolation and distancing came to the forefront mid-March. During that time we shifted gears slightly and adjusted our business model to adapt to the requirements outlined by the Province. 

Leading up to our close, we were seeing the benefits of our efforts the past year and a half. Upon re-opening, we continue on the same trajectory as pre-close. Loyal customers have returned in full-force while new customers have found us as an outlet for their self-isolation. The good weather has helped immensely as well. 

Hardest for me personally was not being able to seat customers inside the cafe or on the patio. I went into business to create a place for sitting down and slowing down, highlighted by the ability to drink your coffee in ceramic cups. The complete opposite has occurred, due to COVID-19. It has preserved the grab-n-go, paper cup culture.

Images by John Lee for Visit Richmond

Have you found new ways to interact with your customer? Have you developed any new products or services as a way to help your clients through this time, or to fill a new need you see?

The hardest part has been the ability to interact with customers.  To respect the City's requirements, we have to insist on grab-n-go, thus making it hard to interact with our customers beyond taking their order and the quick conversations before they must go. This really kills me.

Left the order door - middle the pay station at the order door - right the pick up door.
For the time being, we have created a "take-out window" and "pick-up window" from our two doors to the cafe. Both doors are open with a table blocking each entry. One is near our front counter and has the debit machine on it. We can take orders from behind the counter, a safe distance away, and send the bill to the machine where the customer handles the payment themselves. When the order is ready, it is placed on the table at the other door and we step back to allow the customer to pick it up safely. We also opened up an online ordering portal through our website, to allow customers faster access to our offerings. This has helped add convenience to some customers, but it doesn't replace our storefront service.
Customers cannot enter the cafe and can only place orders from one door.  Despite this, we have recently received a complaint from a local resident in the community that customers were congregating out front of the cafe and posing a risk to others?!?! 

What type of marketing seems to be working best for you in this time of social isolation? 

For the time being, we continue to use our social media (Instagram / Facebook) as our primary medium of advertisement. One thing we share on them is a weekly Tuesday post that features a cyclist from our community. We are trying to feature a wide variety of customers that visit us by bike, to dispel the myth that we are only a road-bike cafe. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, as well as the types of bikes that we ride. By definition, Sanctuary is a safe place of refuge or rest, a place where you go for peace that is free from judgement or persecution. 

Anything you'd like readers to know about you and your business? Any last words of encouragement you'd like to share with everyone?

#civilcycling is used in all of my Instagram posts to promote the philosophy of slowing down to enjoy the ride. As long as we approach cycling (and life) in a civilized manner, everyone will benefit. Less accidents, less confrontation and less burnout. This is reflected in a quote inside the cafe by Jimmy Buffet, "Go fast enough to get there, but slow enough to see". The more tolerant and patient we are during this time, the more empathy we hope to create in this world.

#stevestoneastvillage / #eastvillage are other hastags we use in all of our posts to promote the neighborhood. To many people in Steveston, the surrounding neighborhood is NOT considered a part of The Village. The area is frequently left out of Village-centric activities and events organized by other groups despite having its own unique identity and service offerings. My hope is to create a neighborhood of pride through the reference to our area as the East Village. It's still a work in progress.